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Wednesday, June 3, 2015


I have to confess that I am disappointed by the responses to my most recent post.  ac raised an extremely important question for anyone, like me, who takes the idea of a socialist transformation of America seriously.  I tried, albeit in a quite preliminary way, to explore that question and to set it in some institutional and historical context.  What would a socialist economy and society really look like, and how would it differ in important experiential ways from the mature capitalist society we live in now?  At the end of that post, as a throwaway snark, I made some snap remarks about Althusser and Gramsci.  And that is all that anyone noticed, so far as the comments indicate.

Look: What thoughtful writers have to say about socialism is interesting and important, and what they have to say about the writings of Marx is also interesting and important.  But in the end, it is much, much more important to try to think through how a socialist society would actually be organized on a day to day basis.

There is a reason why my books do not have many footnotes.  It is not because I think no one but me has anything to say, although as a joke I sometimes describe myself as arrogant.  It is because I care more about the truth than I do about the literature.  I don't really care whether Althusser was a fraud.  Even sitting here in Paris, on his home turf, I am not interested in that question.  I want to know the answer to ac's question.  A life spent working in an automobile factory or an IPhone assembly plant or as a salesperson in a Walmart store is, let us say, less than adequately fulfilling.  How, if at all, would that change if the means of production were collectively owned?  That is not a rhetorical question.  I have a deep faith that collective ownership of the means of production would make it possible for the lives of countless men and women to be substantially improved.  But at this point, I cannot cash that faith in with a detailed, well-reasoned argument in its support.

My post was an invitation to all of you to think about the question and offer your thoughts and experiences.  Quoting something Marx wrote one hundred and fifty years ago is always a good start, but no more than that.  The world has changed vastly in that intervening period, as Marx would have been the first to insist.  I tried to begin to answer that question in my essay "The Future of Socialism" by taking off from a pregnant quote by Marx and looking at what is happening now in large corporations.  I tried to extend the answer a little bit by making some remarks about modern macroeconomists.  Both of those efforts were very preliminary and based on my very limited knowledge.  But at least they were attempts to answer the right question.

So, I will ask again:  How would living in a socialist America differ significantly from living in the America of today.


Matt said...

Have you read Alec Nove's _The Economics of Feasible Socialism_? It's pretty old now (dates from the early 80's) but tries to answer this question. Nove is (was) one of my favorite writes. His economic history of the Soviet Union is great, and he spent a lot of time trying to figure out the Soviet system, what was good and bad about it, and what we could learn from it for liberal countries, and for liberal socialists such as himself. I'd guess the biggest updates to his account would have to do with the impact of computers and the internet since he wrote (no small thing), but I think it's probably still a good place for people to start who are interested in the question.

Tom Hickey said...

Less rent extraction, hence, the potential for more equitable distribution.

The economic system is about distribution of the surplus over subsistence, which has been the economic issue since the winding down of the tribal hunter-gather system and the beginning of agriculture and the production of surplus. The rest of history has been about distribution of the surplus among producers and those who are not involved in production. Feudalism and capitalism decided this based on class structure and power. Under socialism as Marx conceived of it a classless society asymmetries of class and power would cease to exist. While this ideal is not achieve under social democracy and perhaps some configurations of "socialism" it seems reason to conclude extravagant rent extraction would be avoided and some more equitable distribution system devised other than a market system based on the assumption of marginalism and therefore "just deserts."

In a liberal society actually ruled jaw popular sovereignty that would be for the people to decide. "Government of the people, by the people and for the people" is ideal that has never existed, irrespective of Lincoln's rousing rhetoric. The really is John Jay's, "Those that own the country should govern it."

The is a political issue as well as an economic one and it must be decided politically. Presumably, different political jurisdiction would work out institutional arrangements appropriate to their constituencies.

For example, technological innovation and productivity increases that make higher compensation in real terms, including more leisure, would be justly distributed in a fair system iaw the institutional arrangements adopted through a political process based on equality of persons. Privilege would no longer arise artificially by imposition justified based on "natural forces."

What about the fact that at least some workers would be doing the same thing under both capitalism and socialism. Well, in the former case, no matter how benign the employer, the producer is working for someone other than self and spending part of the day working for free so that the owner can profit from it. That would not be the case under socialism. Free people would be working for themselves, even though doing essentially the same thing. It's about freedom and fairness.

Chris said...

Sorry for the derailing. I'm always reluctant to enter these future society debates for several reasons.
1. I consider it a serious problem when people look to individuals for large scale social blue prints and/or change. I consider this to be one of the stains on our thought patterns which we presently face. Whatever a future society ought to be needs to be decided collectively and democratically by those it's going to impact. I can maybe provide insight into how to change my narrow area of work, but I'm reluctant to start drafting up plans for others. What the hell do I know about telling auto workers and farmers how to do their job both well and democratically.

2. It always strikes me as an objective fact of Marxian thought that we necessarily lack the mental equipment to discuss a qualitatively new society, because our categories of thought are socially determined by the one we live in now. For me to construct a bona fide socialist society is as reckless and impossible a task as it would be for Plato to talk about reforming the Federal Reserve and the underground derivatives market in Ancient Athens.

3. You and I disagree that there's this law of value operative, and that as a corollary result the wage form of compensation qua wage form necessarily conceals exploitation. Hence why you and I disagree on the need for credit markets and money in socialism. That strikes me as a giant hurdle. Because all the propositions I see by so-called socialist is often just heavy-handed welfare capitalism. That won’t cut it. That will still suffer the same laws of motion and crises capitalism suffers, and will be subjected to the same class pressures and anarchic market capitalism suffers from.

But I guess, if I'm to ignore 1-3, and seriously discuss what I do consider to be an important question, i.e., how do we ensure non-alienation and decent living, we can implore a few basic principles.

First, the Marxian principle of distribution by need, production by ability. Need will be socially and democratically determined. Production too. As to how to organize production it must be democratic, those that produce must also make the decisions of how to produce, democratically. Alienation is a problem when people fail to exercise their species-being, and everyone should have equal access to unalienated, species-being labor. If one is lucky in that their favorite activity happens to also be one society needs (i.e., carpentry), then maybe they should spend X amount of time - but no more than the average of others - doing something menial like plunging toilets. Moreover, if one happens to be good at something they find not fulfilling, but society really needs it, e.g., plunging toilets, they need equal time as non-alienated laborers to do what it is they love, e.g., painting, or less-good carpentry.

What needs to be worked on is time spent producing necessary goods, and time spend being a species-being. No doubt for some people these two things do and do not interact in the very area of necessary production time (for the carpenter they do, for the plumber they do not). That's where the heart of the problem lies, so far as I can tell at least....But any answer to the problem that overlooks 1-3, I tend to ignore. So all of analytical Marxism? And Rawls? And Dworkin?

F Lengyel said...
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F Lengyel said...
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Ridiculousicculus said...

"A life spent working in an automobile factory or an IPhone assembly plant or as a salesperson in a Walmart store is, let us say, less than adequately fulfilling. How, if at all, would that change if the means of production were collectively owned?"

I think this is the key question in your post, rather than the question of how would living in a socialist America differ from living in America today. And I think the answer is that, whether the means of production are collectively owned or not, most people are not going to find jobs like working in an Iphone assembly plant or as a salesperson at Walmart to be intrinsically fulfilling. Work in an Iphone plant, or retail sales at a Walmart store, amount to alienated labor: it's the type of work that divorces the workers' labor from his/her humanity. This alienation of labor must be overcome if we attempt to transition from a capitalist economy to a socialist one. Not everyone in the world can be a doctor or a college professor or an attorney, but working at McDonald's mostly sucks. Yet we live in a society that values McDonald's. How do you change people's desire for the choices among commodities (7,000 types of sneakers available at Zappos), and the resulting waste (which people enjoy almost as much as productivity), produced by a Capitalist system? Unless you answer this question, for average people, a socialist America will not look much different at all than a capitalist one.

Ridiculousicculus said...

One answer that has been muted is technology. The techno-utopian socialists (I'm not sure if these people have a name, but it's how I think of them) see technology as the solution to all of our problems; technology and automation is supposed to replace the jobs people don't want to do, like make food at McDonalds and manufacture I-Phones. The idea is that we redirect the technology and means of production we currently have, and are developing, towards eliminating mindless jobs. We then use the productivity gains to take care of everybody on the planet. The result is a world where people only work when they want to, at jobs they want to perform, and technology creates a baseline of primary goods and services for everyone. Think about The Federation in "Star Trek"... where society boldly goes forth to explore space and all that. It may be a misreading of your favorite quote from Marx, but I believe the idea that "No social order disappears before all of the productive forces for which there is room in it have been developed, and new, higher relations of production never appear before the material components of their existence have matured in the womb of the old society" can be applied to this sort of speculation on technological development. Furthermore, I think you're going to need to see a change of this magnitude before life looks and/or feels all that much "different" to the everyday worker or American in a socialist society.

Ridiculousicculus said...

The problem with all of this is that, absent a violent revolution or major cataclysmic event, this vision is predicated upon a successful political movement that takes property rights away from capitalists and transfers them to the state. If you're an Eeyore, rather than a Tigger, you tend to think that too many people have too much invested in the capitalist system as it stands to just voluntarily give up their positions in the economy for the benefit of the rest of society; most people simply don't give a shit about starving people in India or black Americans getting shot in Ferguson.

I have read your work on the Future of Socialism, and have observed within my own lifetime the dramatic effect advancing technology in computers, medicine, internet automation, etc. has had humanity's capabilities. Capitalism does seem to have brought us the infrastructural and bureaucratic requirements for a Socialist economy. I also believe that a centrally-managed economy is going to be required to redirect the productive forces of society away from enriching the few and towards taking care of the many, and generating meaningful life experiences for the lumpenproletariat whose jobs will be forever displaced by technology. But... I don't see it happening as a result of a purely political movement. Capitalism must collapse on itself, either through violence, plague, famine, something... so that the remaining infrastructure created by capitalism can be seized and put to use for the collective good of humanity. Only then will we see a socialism that sets the conditions for the lives of Americans to actually look and feel different from the lives of Americans under a capitalist system.

La Prairie said...

I really enjoy your blog, Professor Wolff. Thank you for your contributions. The question you ask is obvious enough, but maybe not asked often enough. Or perhaps I just don’t pay too much attention when it is because I think it’s mostly an academic exercise, to use one of Chomsky’s favorite phrases.

With respect to the question of how and when a socialist “revolution” might occur, I like Samir Amin’s response. He pointed out that it really took capitalism hundreds of years--beginning in China and gradually spreading West—to emerge as the global mode of production. Likewise, socialism will probably take hundreds of years to emerge as the predominant mode of production. According to Amin, it will come in “waves,” the first few of which we have already seen. There may be more, if humans live long enough. Right now, around the world, worker cooperatives are emerging as a response to capitalism’s inability to meet people’s needs. I don’t understand all this talk about violent and rapid revolutions, and why such a thing would be necessary, or even possible.

As for what such a society would look like, one can only speculate, but clearly democratic control of the means of production will be the distinguishing characteristic from capitalism. Can this occur in highly bureaucratized social structures, the very structures that have enabled efficient mass production under capitalism? Sure, why not? Could work in these bureaucracies be any less alienating? Sure, why not? Central to the concept of alienation is alienation of time (labor). If society could be organized in a way that would distribute the social product equitably on the basis of labor patronage (as opposed to its division into necessary and surplus components) it might be possible in that society to dramatically reduce the working day and, concomitantly, ensure that everyone is able to work productively. Thus menial labor could be dramatically reduced and spread over more workers, workers who wouldn’t necessarily be tethered to this work for the better part of their lives. Perhaps socialization of production might also yield a return to smaller-scale production of some low-tech commodities in more local settings in which individuals produced use-values outside of corporate structures, as a more even distribution of wealth could ensure effective demand for these necessarily more costly goods. Or maybe this is all just the fantastic speculation of someone who hasn’t read enough political economy.

Magpie said...


Imagine yourself, seating where you are now; but it's not 2015. It's 1780. Someone asks you how will the world look like after the French Revolution.

How would you have answered that question? For that matter, how would your interrogator answer that?

Truth is, I don't know.

Or rather, I know it must be different in many ways to what we have now; it also must be better in at least some way; in many other ways it should be pretty much similar. That is so because, if there is no improvement whatsoever, the same causes will lead to repeated attempts to achieve the right solution, just like biological species repeatedly attempt to adapt (sometimes successfully, sometimes not so much) to their changing environment.

If you ask me to speculate, I can speculate that an inhabitant of Pompeii could have given you the same answer about life in XXI century Paris. Or a Cro-Magnon about life in Rome, 200 AD. And they would have been right.

I can answer that with certainty, because life is change. Nothing is eternal, not the universe, biological species, or human societies. Things are born, grow, adapt, decay and die: they change. This is so whether we know where change is headed or not, or whether we like the change.

Only fossils do not change. Hopefully, our species has not reached that stage, yet, because civilization as we know it cannot survive capitalism anymore. Either we outgrow it, or we'll follow the dinosaurs.

This is how Rosa Luxemburg put it: "Bourgeois society stands at the crossroads, either transition to Socialism or regression into Barbarism." At the time, she was wrong, but not by much: Barbarism then, was only Nazism.

We may not have a certain destination, but cowardice is death.


Your educated guess is that, at least initially, a relatively tiered society will subsist. That sounds like a good guess, to me. Personally, I can live with that, having done so all my life. Orchestra conductors will still be needed.

Or maybe I just don't understand the question.

Seth said...

"How would living in a socialist America differ significantly from living in the America of today."

How would living in a feudal America differ? I think we all are a bit blinkered by the whole feudal/capitalist/socialist framework -- it's hard to see the very considerable continuity in the social fabric of daily life through the centuries.

Your original post on this topic reminded me strongly of John Kenneth Galbraith's books "The Affluent Society" and "The New Industrial State". It has been decades since I read them, but my recollection is that they tried seriously to engage concretely with how we might re-organize ourselves to achieve socially desirable ends like greater economic equality, lesser damage to the environment, etc. His style of economics has pretty nearly become extinct these days. It was "political economy" and the politics these days has to: 1) comply with orthodoxy imposed by big money, an orthodoxy which resembles nothing so much as the old soviet "Dialectical Materialism" in the role it plays in elite thinking, 2) obscure itself behind mathematical hand-waving.

Magpie said...

By the way, after giving the question some more thought, I realized that I left something out of the picture (not because I considered it unimportant, but because, as a Marxist, I thought it would be unnecessary to mention it).

The main problem of our time, the root problem that our species must confront if civilization is to be preserved and our own survival ensured, is the private property of the means of production. From it stems not only social and economic instability, but also political bias; even environmental degradation could be greatly alleviated with a rational distribution of the means of production.

Needless to say, I don't think this can be achieved easily or that everybody will be happy with that. It won't make us all wiser, prettier, holier, or anything.

But it would make for a great step forward.

classtruggle said...

Seth, I remember this book from some years ago. My supervisor who is now 70 read it in his first years at university. It was then quite a novel argument that was not taken up by anyone in the mainstream. Galbraith's argument has to do with (countervailing) rights held by organisations (whereas in my own research I discuss them as workers' rights).

Power is about rights. The key to understanding power, long a mystery in sociology, is that it is always based on rights, except where it rests on bullying, force, or charisma or charm!. Unfortunately, outside of economics, the concept or theory of property/right has not been taken up much. it is quite a powerful concept, and without it, you can't make sense of a lot of things.

For anyone who hasn't, do read Galbraith -- I remember that book as a breath of fresh air.

Seth said...

@classstruggle, you may be thinking of another book Galbraith wrote: American Capitalism. That one develops the concept of Countervailing power, which of course bears upon workers rights -- it being a force that can help to assert and defend workers interests.

No one can understand the reaction (roughly dating to the mid 70's) against workers' economic interests without taking account of the way globalization and propaganda have eroded all forms of countervailing power.

classtruggle said...

Oh that's right. Thanks for the clarification Seth. Still a good reference.

As for your second point, yes, I agree. I think their (bourgeoisie) relations were by and large international until after WWII, when they become progressively global with the formation of an enabling framework (the IMF, WB, WTO, UN, etc). I agree that I do not think that we can talk about a global capitalist class until the 1970s roughly when capital goes on the offensive and tries to take back all that labour had won (dubbed 'new property' in the literature) in the post war era . As for the working classes, there is a labour market, so to speak, at the global level, that is, meaning that global corporations can access national labour markets as if they were part of a global matrix of labour markets. But the working classes have been kept national, tied by national/local laws and institutions and unable to assert themselves at the global level, with minor exceptions. So, now we have transnational corporations and national/regional working classes.

And trade unions, as the embodiments of national corporate property relations and representatives of the working class, are effectively prevented from moving beyond the limits of the national forms in which they had developed, leaving them with no formal, institutional mechanism, for representation and expression to challenge a system of production and distribution that is increasingly global.

As Marx observed almost 150 years ago: “if the working class wishes to continue its struggle with some chance of success, the national organisations must become international.” Although now we can say global. Marx says international because of the different levels of development of ruling classes and technology at the time [the word international means just that -- inter-national - not global. Global would mean, in my books, a class that truly operates on the global plane, while international means relations between national classes. The International Workingman's Association was an international organisation for example, not global].

Many observers, however, have insisted on searching for and applying old national solutions to qualitatively new global problems. While capital has both a global and a national framework, no regulatory framework exists for protecting union or workers’ rights at the regional or global levels – the levels at which most economic policies are now broadly determined. If they are to survive and thrive in a hostile global environment, trade unions will have to define and defend themselves at the global level.

Tom Hickey said...

Right. The ownership class (haute bourgeoisie, now called oligarchs) has embraced the global economy as transnational with to nation states and meta-national with respect to economics. There is a single economy as a closed system in which the factors are operative. The objective of the ownership class now is to surmount obstacles created by democracy dependent on national sovereignty that is subject to countervailing influences. This is the not so hidden agenda of so-called free trade agreements. While the rhetoric is about classical liberal assumptions about free markets, free trade, and free capital flow, the reality is about accumulating economic power, which necessitates state capture in order to be able to command politically as well as economically.

Removing countervailing force in Galbraith's sense is part and parcel of that strategy, which is well on its way to becoming reality. For example, the ownership class controls the candidate selection process through the selection process that is determine by the ability to raise funds from large donors and then the campaign contributions of those donors to influence voters.

The result, however, is the antithesis of liberalism, namely, absolutism. When and if that is achieved globally, then countervailing forces arise to contend with it.

While the US is committed to unipolar global hegemony under rules set by its ownership class as a new American empire, economically emerging countries are already also emerging as countervailing forces socially, politically and economically. They are united in opposing unipolarism with multipolarism. Moreover, they have no liberal tradition and their traditions are quite different and disparate. It is really only America that is extremely individualistic, with the UK less so, and Europe even less. Moreover, the recent traditions of Russia and China have been socialist, and India also has a strong socialist tradition.

The historical dialectic is proceeding apace, with Western liberalism to the fore but being challenged by the emerging world, most areas of which do not share this worldview. It appears to me that the historical dialectic is at the point of another period of conflict that will determine the next moment, yet to be defined.